Let’s face it: search engine optimization (SEO) has never been the most glamorous marketing tactic. If you’re a CMO, you’re focused on broader responsibilities ranging anywhere from growth strategy and innovation to product positioning and sales enablement. In the broader picture, SEO might seem to be too tactical for CMOs to give much thought to.
But given its critical impact on much larger KPIs, you can’t afford to hand off SEO to a digital marketing manager and leave it at that. At minimum, you should have a solid understanding of how SEO fits into your marketing strategy so you can effectively guide and manage those heading up the task.
Your goal should be to steer, not to row. There's no need for a CMO to toil in the weeds of keyword targeting, link building and SEO content creation. But it is important that you set the stage and provide the guidance needed to make SEO an important part of driving business results.
Toward that end, here are five essential points that CMOs should understand to maximize SEO impact:
1. Understand the potential of SEO to drive your organization's marketing results.
Admittedly, SEO can be very strategic to some companies, but for other organizations there are better uses of time, talent and treasure. Only a senior level executive such as yourself can weigh in on how much of your scarce marketing budgets should be allocated to SEO versus other spend alternatives.
These days, there are ways to be informed of specific, named prospective customers who are demonstrating purchase intent through their actions on the web. So, should you invest more of your marketing budget in SEO than in purchase intent? That's a CMO-level decision you'll need to make long before your team starts chasing after keywords or hiring an SEO agency.
2. SEO should inform your marketing strategy from the beginning.
If you decide that SEO can be strategic to your business and marketing goals, then approach it strategically. Too often, SEO is an afterthought, one that comes after polishing marketing messaging, solidifying branding efforts and designing a new website. But SEO should be a strategic lever that informs other tactics, rather than one that is isolated as a siloed initiative.
Why build SEO into everything you do?Seventy-one percent of B2B researchers start their research with generic search. Organic search is at the top of the funnel for most B2B brands, and it’s imperative that companies are easily discoverable on the web. If your website is designed without best SEO practices in mind, it will flounder on Google’s search engine results page (SERP).
That means website structure, navigational architecture and web platforms should all be orchestrated with searchability in mind. Create clear hierarchies, keep coding simple and streamline user paths to improve SEO results.
Additionally, CMOs should advise their staff to ditch the marketing jargon they love and speak in the query language searchers are using. To maximize web traffic, write clearly and research the keywords searchers actually use when they are in the market for your offerings.
3. Play to win.
SEO programs are a long-term commitment. If you need leads in a hurry, you may want to look at other options, like purchase intent and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
I always counsel CMOs to invest in SEO because not doing so gives the leads away to competitors who pursue SEO more aggressively than you have. Yes, it takes a long time to build a strong SEO presence, but once you get there, there are no ongoing costs per lead that come from SEO. From an ROI perspective, SEO can be very cost effective.
The other key part of playing to win in SEO is knowing when to bump and weave. Your approach should not be static. Besides accounting for changes in your industry, you need to adjust your strategy to align with constantly shifting Google algorithms and user habits.
Think about the evolution of search engine results in recent years. A web page that may have once ranked at the top of the search results for an important key phrase might now fall below the fold. Google has pushed organic results down, with more real estate allocated to things like paid ads, a Twitter carousel featuring popular tweets or aknowledge graph panel. Similarly, Google's algorithm changes may have dropped your No. 1 and No. 2 rankings down to the second page.
The right approach is not to obsess about individual ranking, so don't ask your team or agency for ranking reports. Instead, ask them to let you know how much traffic you are getting from SEO and how much business is being generated. If your SEO team can't answer those questions to your satisfaction and show forward progress over time, then it may be time to bring in a fresh perspective.
Also, it’s important to constantly monitor metrics like click-through and bounce rates to understand what content draws users to your site and what deters them. Not only will a solid understanding of metrics improve your user experience, it can also make or break your SEO strategy.
4. Focus on the metrics that matter.
CMOs are always asked to tie initiatives to revenue, and that is clearly the metric that most obviously illustrates the success of SEO. While I recommend that you track SEO's direct impact on revenue when possible, I'm aware that revenue attribution is challenging for many organizations. In lieu of dollar-based metrics, it's best to focus on the secondary driver metrics that, if improved, should drive more revenues.
For SEO purposes, the revenue drivers that are best to track are specific goals, like a form completion that gets a prospective customer into your marketing and/or sales funnels. Your website analytics solution can let you know how many come from prospects who came to your site via SEO. Is the absolute number of goal completions trending up? If not, you need to tell your SEO team to up their game.
Beyond high-level metrics focused on customer acquisition and goal completions, you'll want to ask your team how other tertiary goals are trending. A few questions to ask: How many visitors came in through organic search? How many new visitors arrived this month, and how many are returning? How much time are users spending on each page? What is the ROI when it comes to updating older content to make it friendlier to search engines? What types of content seem to be doing the best for us? What are you doing to improve conversion rates once SEO traffic arrives on your site?
By understanding SEO fundamentals and asking the right questions of your marketing team or agency, you can motivate them and hold them accountable to constantly polishing your SEO efforts over time with a laser focus on results.
5. Take the SEO high road.
Many SEO strategists use black hat tactics (like keyword stuffing, stub pages or duplicated content) that may lead to short-term results, but will ultimately damage efforts in the long run. Rather than try to game the system, play the game that Google and other search engines want you to play. It's a simple bargain. If you produce high-quality content that users actually find value in, you'll get the search engine traffic you want.
That means your website needs to be the hub for high-quality, useful and engaging content. Aim to be the destination for topics in your field. This means you'll need both volume and depth of content. If your content is informative and thorough, you’ll reduce the likelihood that users will leave your site to find other resources.
Trust me on this one. While promotional, surface-level content might draw readers in, they’ll leave if they can’t find what they want. It’s always worth it to invest more time and effort to produce quality content that actually helps readers.
The details matter when it comes to SEO, and there are not a ton of shortcuts. For example, your content also needs to be easily and quickly accessible to search engine users. Reduce page load speed and optimize pages for the mobile experience to ensure users can actually read your content regardless of location or device. Again, it's about focusing on Google's customers, making sure not only that they get great content but also that you're providing an enjoyable experience that always delights and never frustrates.
It’s true that CMOs shouldn’t be handling every aspect of SEO. But given its importance to a well-rounded inbound marketing strategy, it can’t be ignored. Understanding SEO can help you support and justify improved initiatives that will increase its impact across your organization.
As VP of Search & Engagement at TechTarget, Jessica Levenson is a straight-shooting innovative search and content thought leader leveraging her early days as a developer to dominate search engine results and the information firehose that is social media. She’s passionate about women in STEM and all things content, SEO and social.